Travel: Benidorm - Uncovering the Spanish side

Water's edge: Taking it easy on the beach in Benidorm, where the sun shines for 3,400 hours a year and there is an average annual temperature of 18C.

Water's edge: Taking it easy on the beach in Benidorm, where the sun shines for 3,400 hours a year and there is an average annual temperature of 18C.

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IN a Benidorm bar, tension was growing and the beer flowing as Spanish football fans on the edge of a nervous breakdown urged their heroes on to penalty shootout glory against Portugal in the semi-final of Euro 2012, writes Tim Cotton.

But with England out it made a nice change to sit back and watch Spain’s success-spoiled supporters experiencing some of the same agonies our fans have been going through for years.

This piece of Spanish drama was being played out just a few streets away from the main area of bars and clubs from which many of the 1.5 million visitors from Britain never strayduring their time in Europe’s most popular tourist destination.

Which is a shame, because there’s another ‘Spanish’ side to be uncovered just a short way from the Brit haunts.

Playa de Levante, the archetypal tourist beach rammed with parasols and sunloungers, was packed with British families during our visit at the end of June.

It’s a lovely Blue Flag standard beach, which is extremely safe for children, with plenty of activities, including paragliding, cable-skiing and banana boats.

But only a stroll through the old town, with its quaint narrow streets and tapas bars, is the chilled-out and bijou Mal Pas beach, flanked by an attractive promontory where a castle once protected Benidorm against pirates from North Africa.

At the homely Mas Pas restaurant we tucked into delicious tapas of fried fish and chopitos (battered baby cuttlefish).

Beyond the old town stretches Playa de Poniente, a stunning three-mile beach very popular with Spanish families. Many Madrilenos have holiday homes in this part of Benidorm. It is easily reached from the capital city.

Near the new seafront promenade designed to emulate sea waves on Poniente beach, Restaurante Barranco Playa was the perfect spot to enjoy a paella lunch.

Benidorm has a unique micro-climate all year round thanks to the sheltering Sierra Cortina mountains which give a stunning backdrop to the town. The sun shines for 3,400 hours a year and there is an average annual temperature of 18C (15C in winter and 26C in summer).

May and June account for a sizeable chunk of Benidorm’s five million tourists a year and in winter many British pensioners escape the cold and book in for long stays.

Two festivals have been launched since 2010 to attract younger people to Benidorm.

Superstar DJ Carl Cox topped the bill at this month’s Electrobeach. The Lowcost Festival was headlined by Kasabian, Placebo and Suede.

A more typically Spanish occasion is July’s Festival of the Patron Saint of The Sea and Virgin of Carmen.

Benidorm’s ancient maritime history is celebrated by concerts, fireworks and festivities culminating in a sea procession of fishermen on ‘golodrinas’ travelling to Benidorm Island accompanied by small boats in a colourful parade to Poniente Beach.

Visitors can take a trip to the tiny wedge-shaped island.

Legend says it was created when a giant knocked a huge chunk of rock out of the 3,000ft Puig Campana as he tried in vain to save his wife from dying by prolonging the life-giving rays of the sun.

You transfer to a glass-bottom boat to get a close look at shoals of brightly coloured fish in the Mediterranean.

But the highlight of the trip was undoubtedly the chance to buy a plate, speedily and expertly decorated with a photo of our faces. None of our group could resist snapping up such a powerful memento of the island, intriguingly nicknamed ‘the isle of the journalists’.

Back on the mainland are five family theme parks: Terra Mítica , Terra Natura, Aqua Natura, Aqualandia and Mundomar.

Terra Mitica is Spain’s largest theme park. It’s a bit of a slog when it’s hot but you can visit it over two days with the second day free . A season ticket could be good value if you plan to return.

It’s a lot of fun just strolling round the immaculately landscaped park spotting landmarks of the ancient world, including the Egyptian pyramids, the Acropolis and a full-size Lighthouse of Alexandria.

A log flume ride was more than enough excitement for our band of thrill-avoiders.

Joint tickets are available for Aqualandia water park and the smaller Mundomar sealife park, a great day out for families with small children. You can take your own food into the restaurant.

Terra Natura, incorporating another waterpark in Aqua Natura, seemed a bit tired around the edges, with the animals appearing bored and in need of more space.

Back in the Benidorm bar fans of La Roja were set free from their spotkick agony and celebrating wildly as Spain kept their nerve better than Ronaldo and Portugal to win the shootout and book their place in the final.

The party was in full swing as car horns blared and people sang. The demolition of Italy, now that would have been one extra-special fiesta.

TRAVEL FACTS:

* We stayed at the 4* Melia Hotel Benidorm www.melia-benidorm.com/en/index.html.

* Mundomar www.mundomar.es.

* Aqualandia www.aqualandia.net.

* Terra Mitica www.terramiticabenidorm.com.

* Terra Natura www.terranatura.com.

* Visit ww.en.visitbenidorm.es and www.facebook.com/visitbenidorm.

* We flew with Monarch, which operates year round flights to Alicante from Manchester with fares, including tax, from £38.99 one way (£69.50 return): www.monarch.co.uk.

EATING OUT:

* Cerveceria Victor, Calle Lepanto, tel.96 586 40 11

* Benidorm Palace, Avenida Severo Ochoa 13, www.benidorm-palace.com.

* Barranco Playa restaurant, Calle Vicente Llorca Alos 14, {http;//www.barranco playa.com|www.barranco playa.com|visit www.barranco playa.com}.

* Ducado Restaurant, Avenida Almeria www.ducado.restaurantesok.com.

* Restaurante L’illa de Benidorm, Benidorm: 965 97 24 82

* Restaurante Mas pas Calle Mal Pas, 1 | 03501

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